This follows from an earlier post about science and religion, as well as numerous other posts where I’ve talked about respect, accommodationism, and double-standards. They’re not necessary to make sense of this one, but I recommend checking them out anyway for a deeper appreciation of the points I’m making.
A very common occurrence right now, especially in the blogoblob, is someone reprimanding the so-called “New Atheists” for their incivility. There are countless examples, but the primary culprits are bloggers such as Josh Rosenau (who should not be confused with Jason Rosenhouse,) Jean Kazez, Jeremy Stangroom, and the vapid Chris Mooney. If you’re looking for further details about this, Jerry Coyne has posted about it and links to several of the more distinctive posts from others.
If it helps, the term “New Atheist” doesn’t have a distinct definition, but generally refers to atheists that publicly address the issues with religion, most especially if they have published books or receive innumerable hits per day on their blogs – by most accounts, that’s not exactly me (“four” is not innumerable.) This led to another, satirical term, “Gnu Atheists,” which basically means the same thing but is self-inflicted, a matter of pride rather than, as “New Atheists” is usually expressed, an epithet. The reason behind using the epithetical term is to try and create a special distinction of person, a particularly reprehensible and loathsome class much worse than simply the worldview of atheism. If you doubt this, simply note how the phrase is often used.
Invariably, and tiresomely, the principle argument is that New Atheists are resorting to incivility, being shrill and strident when addressing how religion affects the world, and of course, whether science and religion can coexist in harmony even better than Felix and Oscar. On the face of it, this sounds perfectly reasonable – addressing perceived problems shouldn’t have to be confrontational or abusive, and are almost certainly received better without derision.
However, that really isn’t what is being said, as countless bloggers have pointed out. The issue isn’t so much the method of addressing religion, which quite often is perfectly civil. The issue is addressing religion in any way. You see, religion is treated as an inalienable right, not just to pursue, but to pursue free from criticism, examination, or rational support. Religion is, supposedly by its very nature, a special privilege and exemption.
Provided, of course, that it’s your own. Someone else’s religion, naturally enough, can be treated any way that you like. Because, you know, your own is truth and light and all that jazz, but everybody else is being fatuous and following superstition. And the way that this is supported, the rule or guideline or test to demonstrate such selectivity? None whatsoever – that’s also special privilege.
The sarcasm in that previous section hopefully denoted the idiocy of this standpoint. You might also have noted the hypocrisy, especially if you’re from the US: the various rights that we’re guaranteed as citizens not only provide for the right to religion, but the right to free speech as well.
A frequent argument, at least by implication if not outright admission, is that Free Speech can not be used to deny Freedom of Religion. What’s missed, of course, is that these don’t relate. My questioning anyone for being religious does not actually prevent their religious belief or expression in any way. The laws are not changed by someone pointing out that some expression, while freely given, still constitutes irrationality. And there is no right of respect, no guarantee of freedom from offense. Because that would actually deny free speech, wouldn’t it?
We can, of course, play the game by those rules, and assume that freedom from offense actually exists. So go on, guess what offends me? Guess what offends New Atheists? Shit, that was too easy – how come none of those other bloggers up there ever seems to catch that one? Freedom from offense is a painfully idiotic concept, but many people still seem to think it makes sense.
There are much worse implications of all this, though, and evidence of just how damaging arguments over civility really are. I hinted above at the idea of the rights of another religion, but let’s take this exercise right along with the simple substitution game. For instance, islam requires women to remain chastely covered up, and it is thus disrespectful and a denial of religious rights to ignore this practice, right? No no, I didn’t ask how that applies to christians and jews, because this is not about what they get to decide on their own. I’m talking about denying the rights of muslims by any female refusing to wear burqas.
While that might seem ridiculous, change that example to something like laws restricting gay marriage or abortion. All of a sudden, the issue switches from “freedom” to “the word of god” or “the will of the majority,” doesn’t it? We suddenly aren’t talking about whether someone is simply pursuing their own personal belief system, but about what they can decide for others. How come? Should we consider the rights provided by our forefathers to be something we should change based on how the majority feels? Well, we’ve done it before – we openly ignored the rights of both women and non-whites for many decades, willfully finding excuses for those very passages that guaranteed their rights. So what the hell, yeah? If you’re not part of the crowd, you don’t belong – join up or get lost. Too fucking bad you were born that way, I guess.
There’s another aspect, too. I’m not sure how we got so far along this path, but our culture seems to think that criticism is somehow uncivil, inhumane, and damaging. It’s a shame that anyone actually has to point out how ludicrous this is, yet the arguments that revolve around this idea remain. Anyone can consider their test grades to be criticism, or a traffic ticket, or employment evaluations, or even safety standards and contamination prevention. The focus is on the negative aspect, rather than the positive one of setting reasonable, worthwhile goals. A world without criticism is a world without improvement.
So should religion be free from criticism? Well, of course, because it’s a manifestation of perfection! Those parts that we find to be imperfect and damaging, petty and abusive are simply because we don’t understand the will of the creator. Oh, wait, you meant those other religions – no, they’re just bullshit, we can trash those all we want. But ignoring the sarcastic approach for a moment (it takes special effort, so be patient,) what is it about criticism that gets religious folk so defensive, anyway? You would think that not only would it be exceptionally hard, dare I say impossible, to offer distinct faults with the creations and will of a perfect being, it wouldn’t matter anyway, because mere human discussion couldn’t possibly affect such a powerful being, right? Why worry about atheists, muslims, christians, or anyone else speaking against the one true faith – what could mere words do? Apparently, judging from the fear, vehemence, and drastic accusations from the overly defensive religious folk, the answer is, “a hell of a lot.” It’s almost like they don’t actually believe they’re wielding ultimate truth, isn’t it?
So what? The arguments in favor of religion should be able to carry themselves. Yet, they don’t. Actually, the argument against incivility is the best that’s being offered anymore. “Ultimate Truth” has now resorted to addressing tone, not substance, and trying to pretend that this is all that matters. It’s really quite pathetic. Of course, the tone used to describe those New Atheists doesn’t actually count, no no! Nor, apparently, does accuracy or even avoiding outright lies. Those are okay, because, you know, as long as it’s done in the name of religion, it’s all good.
The right religion, mind you.
We, as a species, should welcome criticism. We should treat it with utmost seriousness, embrace it, and learn from it. The only way to be right, to know what correct even is, is to recognize that being wrong is possible, even likely. Disallowing naysayers in any manner is to admit that we are openly afraid of what they say, an admission that we already know that we’re wrong. It’s no way for responsible adults to behave. Not listening to the music doesn’t mean it isn’t playing.
The issue of proper tone is nonsense, as well. Tone is an indicator not just of disagreement, but of how much. I can simply say that stealing pencils is wrong, as is raping parishioners. You’d think I was mental to compare them in any way. Yet that’s exactly what is being demanded by those named bloggers above. But only, mind you, from the New Atheists – the incredibly forceful, demeaning, and arrogant tones from the religious are not actually addressed. Ever. Funny that. It’s almost as if, despite their claims of neutrality, they were being paid to promote religion.
Tone is a serious tool in communication, everywhere. It varies from person to person, of course, but the ability to distinguish such subtle nuances is something developed over time, usually by the age of twelve. Naturally, there is a difference between a frothing rant and an incisive takedown of abject irrationality, and this is determined by examining the content as well as the tone – and being able to understand big words. If something strikes you as particularly nasty, you’re probably well aware that the author isn’t supportive of the subject. But the ability to determine if they’re making cogent arguments, regardless of tone, is paramount here. The myriad bloggers who concern themselves over tone believe (or at least are certainly making the case) that most people can’t actually handle this crucial aspect, and/or need to be protected from big meanies. Myself, I give my audience a little more credit than that.
As far as I am concerned, however, the tone is entirely intentional, and I won’t be drawn into some misleading discussion over its appropriateness. If I seem disrespectful, it’s because I am. If I sound disparaging, it’s because I find the subject asinine. That’s the whole point – I mean, fucking duh! Someone who believes Africa is a country, and someone who believes homosexuals should be persecuted because a scattered and contradictory old book tells them so, are engaging in two entirely different levels of “wrong,” and I will openly and unmistakeably distinguish them. I put rational thought and critical examination on a much higher pedestal than someone’s feelings. I’m funny that way.
Various bloggers and pundits can write whatever disparaging articles denouncing disparaging tones that they like – and I, of course, may point out their hypocrisy and lack of usefulness, and most especially their dodging of salient issues to bring up “politeness” as if it suddenly had bearing in the matter. I will very likely treat it as contemptuously as I view it – but never without providing my reasoning behind it. If anyone cannot distinguish the pertinent content, my posts aren’t for them. And of course, anyone scared or threatened by words on a blog is openly invited to hide under the covers and sob.